BWW Reviews: Rousing BILLY ELLIOT Earns Worthy Cheers in L.A.
Let's just say this right off the barre, er, bat: BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL—the Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of the immensely enjoyable 2000 film—is, well... frikkin' fantastic! With the show's national tour finally stopped in Los Angeles, Southern California theatergoers can now experience this fun, rousing musical during its five-week engagement at the Pantages Theatre through May 13.
Once in a while, a show like this comes along that, at its core, is so utterly moving and genuinely delightful that even its blatant flaws—quite unforgivable in any other show—seem to blow away like a rolling hillside fog. So despite an "only-okay" songbook (by Brit royalty Sir Elton John, no less) and a wobbly narrative structure (perhaps a necessity to compact the film's much-better told story), BILLY ELLIOT manages to win over everyone to the point of enthusiastic ovation, and—gosh darn it—it's certainly well-deserved.
Winningly charming and unabashedly buoyant, BILLY ELLIOT—which jetéd away with 10 fairly well-deserved Tony Award wins including Best Musical back in 2009—is a smile-inducing, pleasingly-staged musical that props up and salutes our young, often-misunderstood artistic mavericks, inducing us to cheer these kids on to beat the odds and realize their dreams (even if those around them initially do not support them).
While it doesn't quite best the film that inspired it—even with the direct involvement of the film's director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall, who are both on hand in this adaptation as director and book writer/lyricist, respectively—BILLY ELLIOT's stage incarnation still retains the can-do spirit of the original and is, ultimately, a really entertaining, well-executed show.
Sticking fairly faithful to its cinematic source material, BILLY ELLIOT exalts the story of Billy (played by the magnificent Ty Forhan at the Opening Night performance), a wide-eyed, artistically-gifted young boy toiling in County Durham, a small coal-mining community in England. The show opens at the dawn of the infamous UK coal miners' strike in the mid-1980s, an event that weighs heavily on the minds—and pocketbooks—of the town's citizens, particularly Billy's dad (Rich Hebert) and older brother Tony (Cullen R. Titmas).
Living under modest means, the two men, together with Billy's senile but spunky Grandma (the hilarious Patti Perkins), are trying to raise Billy as best they can, necessitated by the untimely passing of Billy's mother (Kat Hennessy), whom the boy was very close to while she was alive (her calming ghost visage appears to Billy every so often to offer words of encouragement).
To keep Billy occupied after school, his father forces him to take boxing lessons at the local community center. One serendipitous day, Billy is punished with the task of staying behind after boxing to hand the center's keys to the surly Mrs. Wilkinson (the awesome Leah Hocking), who runs an ad-hoc ballet class for young girls just steps from the boxing ring.
With his curiosity for dance piqued, Billy quickly makes the risky decision to keep attending ballet classes—in secret, of course, unless he wants to be deemed a "poof." To admit his love of ballet to his family and neighbors would no doubt go against everything his burly, blue-collar surroundings would allow for a young boy. Besides Mrs. Wilkinson—who immediately recognizes Billy's natural talent for dance—the only other person wholeheartedly supportive of Billy's secret lessons is his openly-flamboyant best friend Michael (played on Opening Night by fabulous scene-stealer Cameron Clifford), who seems to have an unapologetic penchant for cross-dressing.
Meanwhile, the town is embroiled in a bitter, often violent war between the local police (who, probably not by coincidence, slightly resemble Keystone cops) and the rowdy coal mine strikers (with Billy's dad and brother at the head of the opposing charge). As circumstances—and musical theater—often dictate, Billy's dad eventually discovers him wearing ballet flats instead of boxing gloves, and vehemently forbids Billy's further participation in dancing.
Fortunately, realizing that Billy's talent should not be squelched, Mrs. Wilkinson strikes a deal with Billy to continue private one-on-one lessons on the down low for free—in the hopes that Billy's dad will, at some point, stop letting his "working class pride" get in the way and have a change of heart once he sees Billy acing his planned audition with the Royal Ballet School in London.
An almost three-hour musicalized infomercial that celebrates the joy of individual self-expression—that is, being exactly who you are, no matter how quirky others may judge you to be—BILLY ELLIOT leaves hardly any room for self-doubt or societal judgment to ever take over. It's a great, uplifting message, delivered with some of the most spirited dancing you'll find among such a young cast. And, surprisingly, there's very little saccharine in the way it spreads this message, even in such a tried-and-true feel-good show. That's a tough task, especially for a story that's standing on the shoulders of a pre-teen protagonist.
And, wow, what an accomplished, ridiculously talented pre-teen he is! Front-and-center as the title character, little blond wünderkind Forhan (who shares the role alternately with Kylend Hetherington, Zach Manske and J.P. Viernes) literally—and figuratively—soars. Whether spinning or leaping or cracking jokes or having a musicalized emotional breakthrough, Forhan embodies Billy with, to borrow RuPaul's nomenclature, a sincere "realness" that is years ahead of his actual age (or the age his character is supposed to be). He truly wows you.
Together with his other young co-stars, particularly comic genius Clifford (who shares his role with Jacob Zelonky), BILLY ELLIOT is populated with some of the most entertaining young people ever crammed on one stage. It's a staggering sight to behold, and the audience can't help but stand up and cheer boisterously—without a single ounce of aww shucks pity claps coming into play. This ain't no elementary school musical, people.